In a compelling new article in The Atlantic, communications consultant Luba Vangelova discusses how learning to navigate the English language’s logic-defying spelling rules can take up valuable time and energy that could otherwise be spent learning how to read.
A 2003 study found that English-speaking children typically needed about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries needed a year or less.
It typically takes English-speaking children at least 10 years to become moderately proficient spellers—memorizing about 400 new words per year—and because they forget and have to revise many of the spellings they’ve previously learned, “learning to spell is a never-ending chore.”
Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society and author of the bookUnderstanding English Spelling, analyzed the 7,000 most common English words and found that 60 percent of them had one or more unpredictably used letters. No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world’s most irregularly spelled language.
The (bummer) results:
Being judged for not being adept at spelling can undermine children’s self-confidence, lead people to give up on reading, and ultimately restrict their overall academic achievement and employment prospects. Ultimately, about one out of every five English speakers are functionally illiterate, meaning they “cannot read or write well enough for everyday literacy needs.”
The (potential) solution:
The human brain is primed to memorize groups of speech sounds, not sequences of letters, he says. With this in mind, Dmitry Orlov developed his own writing system, Unspell, which is more or less a phonetic rendition of spoken English. It treats words as sequences of sounds rather than sequences of letters, so what you see is what you get: How a word is written is how it’s pronounced, and vice versa.
Orlov views it as an accessible literacy training ground for children, before they learn to read and write conventional English. “Teach [children] to read a simple system,” he says, “and then they can learn a complicated one by themselves” when they are intellectually ready, typically between the ages of eight and 10. Just as importantly, at that stage, they would approach the task from the vantage point of literate, empowered persons who are “already fluent in English.”
Read the entire article here.